Friday 15 February 2019

Ten Years of Expedition Kayaks - by Rob Mercer

2009 on the job at the Queensland Sea Kayak Symposium.
It was one of those fortuitous moments you look back on with a smile, my phone started ringing as I unpacked my kayak on a remote island off the far North Queensland coast. This was a surprise because we hadn’t had phone reception for days and hadn’t expected to pick up calls again for quite a while. It was Mark in Salt Lake City looking at Valley Kayaks with US Valley Rep, who at that stage, was the legendary Sean Morley. Mark wanted to know if I was willing to go halves in a whole container of kayaks. I had already helped him demo and promote a few Impex kayaks but the opportunity to go halves in a full container of the famous Valley Sea Kayaks was too good to pass up so I said yes on the spot and without the slightest hesitation. 
I had been guiding, instructing and coaching sea kayakers for quite a while at that stage. I had travelled around the country for Australian Canoeing, offered private tuition in Sydney and continued to volunteer for training programs with the NSWSKC and any other clubs that wanted help and I had come to the conclusion that the shortage of playful, responsive sea kayaks that were easy to edge, turn and roll was holding both new and experienced paddlers back from reaching their full potential. It wasn’t that the ubiquitous long keeled, straight tracking cruisers weren’t good kayaks but they weren’t really much fun for discovering the subtleties of boat control in rough water and didn’t invite experimentation. I had built my own plywood kayaks because I couldn’t find what I wanted to paddle on the local market and had enjoyed paddling these for years although I still kept my trusty Nadgee for long trips because of the extra volume and watertight hatches. Our first Valley kayak order was exclusively plastic Aquanauts, Nordkapps and Avocets with one Rapier thrown in because I couldn’t resist the idea of a really fast sea kayak for my own amusement. These first steps took energy and imagination; qualities that Mark has proven time and again to possess in almost unlimited supply.

We never really saw these kayaks as replacements for the local long haul boats and we weren’t surprised that most were sold to paddlers who already had a bigger touring kayak and wanted something more playful. We had tapped a vein of pent up demand that ran even deeper than we first suspected and this initial shipment was all gone within a month and a half! On the strength of this we placed our second order straight away and by the time it left the UK half of it consisted of presold composites in custom colours as well as some more of the trusty plastics for stock. 

After the initial rush things settled enough for us to “test” a wider range of offerings for our demo fleet which was sometimes really just code for Mark and I buying more toys to play with. Not all the Valley Kayaks went on to become market winners or personal favorites but all of them taught us more about how design affects performance and just how much space there was in our market for a broader range of kayaks. It became very clear early on that we didn’t have to compete head to head with local kayak businesses because there were so many gaps in what was available. Instead we went looking for kayaks and paddling gear that filled all the niches: blind spots that were simply being ignored by the local big players of the time.  
Via Valley we added North Shore with their excellent single and double Atlantics and then followed up with Rockpool Kayaks; first with the GT and then the Taran.
At around this time we felt the skeg boat market was consolidated and most kayakers were at least aware of rudderless kayaks. We had also successfully located and imported Greenland paddles from the US and on the strength of this brought the Tahe Greenland and Greenland T into Australia providing an alternative “second kayak” or even a third kayak for those who were after the elegant lines of the true original sea kayaks of the arctic. For a while a wave of enthusiasm for Greenland techniques washed through the Aussie sea paddling scene and a visit from Ginni Callahan and then a year later from Cherry Perry and Turner Wilson saw interest and enthusiasm peak for this type of kayaking and use of paddle. 

For me personally watching and assisting these highly talented international coaches and presenters was more important than learning the techniques themselves and I continue to use and adapt teaching methods that I learnt from them when I teach rolling, sculling or bracing. 

Greenland techniques and equipment were still current when the Rockpool Taran and intermediate racing skis arrived and for a brief but very special moment we saw sea kayaking cover the most diverse range of paddling styles in our local paddling scene to date.

 It was a great challenge to find ourselves regularly going through a week of coaching or guiding and having to switch between Brit skeg boats, Greenland replicas, stable racing skis and fast tourers, and having to mix and match with Euro blades, skinny sticks and wing paddles. Some of the combinations worked better than others but we were enjoying a break from the orthodoxy that had dominated the local paddling scene. Trying to support and promote so many different styles of paddling lead us to some irreverent behavior including videos of learning to butterfly roll and hand roll put to a soundtrack of ‘Rage Against the Machine’ or videos of rolling an epic v8 surf ski with a Greenland stick. We pitted skis against fast sea kayaks and sometimes surprised a few ski snobs. We enjoyed having a gentle laugh at ourselves for taking it all a little too seriously in the beginning and I have no regrets if the odd somber individual found all of this a little too flippant for their liking.

Now some ten years since we imported our first shipment of skeg boats, the Greenland replica kayaks and skinny stick are seldom seen on the east coast of Australia and classic British boats are only just holding their own against the easy speed and flatter learning curve offered by skis and fast touring sea kayaks.
As in so many areas of modern life the majority celebrate the idea of diverse skills and experience and then ultimately spend their money on convenience; in this case choosing the easiest way to get exercise and a quick escape from the pressures of daily life.

For the combination of speed and expedition capacity, The Rockpool Taran was a game changer giving us a new and exciting kayak with speed and wave handling characteristics in a class of its own. I think it is fair to say our enthusiasm to do the North Reef trip was inspired by the capacity of the Taran to cover miles in rough water even when fully laden. 

While Rockpool was redefining the touring sea kayak, the big ocean ski manufacturers turned their attention to the silent majority of ski paddlers or ‘wanna be’ ski paddlers who just found the elite skis too hard to paddle. As a result “entry level” and “intermediate” skis flourished and surf ski became accessible and fun for so many more paddlers. 

The reticence of our manufacturers overseas to address our requests for better foot plates and our growing awareness of the need for foot support to encourage leg drive lead us to the research and development of the “BigFoot” footplate system designed to be easily retrofitable into almost any kayak and we found a great ally in local paddler and highly skilled metalworker Greg Davis. As with the previous untapped market niches the Big Foot was immediately snapped up by a local market that could see and feel the benefits. 
Ten years of EK has meant a decade of learning and collaborating. We have discovered the many ways in which kayaks, skis and paddles are not created equal; we have learnt from our customers and suppliers in equal part how to define and understand exactly what makes a successful product; we have learnt how to match products to market niches, and when we have discovered niches that no one else wanted to cover we have developed solutions in collaboration with others such as Mitchell Blades, Lendal NA and Flat Earth Sails. We have also designed and built our own products locally, including pump kits, footplate systems, tarps and kayaks, each time harnessing the artisan skills of local small enterprises and through testing and use in the real world we have learnt how to refine and improve what we do. Our biggest project to date has been the development of the Audax touring Sea kayak: a stable fast and responsive kayak that compliments our other fast tourers and continues to impress paddlers of all abilities. 

At a community level we have supported a wide range of symposiums, competitions, fundraisers and club activities across the country and we have been honored by invitations to deliver training and to share some of our images and stories as guests. In return we have enjoyed great friendships and been able to look on with satisfaction as kayakers have engaged with our products and benefitted from our training services. 

With a little prompting from Mark I have even been in the occasional flat-water race including Hawkesbury Classics and ski races.

However our business is called Expedition Kayaks and I think it is important to head out at least once or twice a year for multi day paddles just to test gear and remember what we are trying to promote, besides, its always a wonderful way to spend a few weeks and still be able to call it “work”.  
Among my favourites since the establishment of EK have been: South Coast NSW, Palm Group to Hinchinbrook and beyond, crossing to the Percy Group off Broad Sound, The Capricorn Quays and North Reef, Kangaroo Island, East Coast Tassie, The Hunter Group in NW Tassie and most recently Eastern Bass Strait for a second time.

In all of this the quiet achiever in our midst has been my wife, Sharon Betteridge who has accompanied us on EK road trips and paddled with me on many of the multiday kayak paddles listed above, she has worked with us on instructional programs and behind the scenes often brings a fresh perspective or reality check when we need it most.

I am proud of our success and delighted we have been able to have so much fun along the way. I am also more than a little humbled by the support we have enjoyed from the local paddling community. Along the way we have made many wonderful friends and I know Mark and I both agree this has been one of the great rewards for our efforts, unfortunately we have also lost two of the very best in Chris James and Mick Macrobb, both very different characters but both inspiring in their own way. There are many times when I wonder what they would have thought of how EK has continued to evolve over the years?

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations Rob & Mark on your 10 year adventure with Expedition Kayaks.

    It's been great to see you guys at the VSKC AGM's where you have shared your knowledge & experience with established paddlers as well as new comers to sea kayaking.

    Best wishes for the next 10 years.

    Bill Z


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